On 13 May 2014 Turkey experienced the biggest industrial accident in its history.
More than 150 mine workers are still reported to be trapped following an explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, Manisa province, western Turkey.
At the last count, 282 workers at the privately-owned mine were confirmed dead.
One of those killed was 15-year-old Kemal Yıldız, whose death has drawn attention to the issue of unregistered, as well as underaged, mine workers.
By the time you read this, that figure will undoubtedly be much higher.
As the families of the miners wait anxiously in front of the collapsed pit and the hospital, desperate to hear news about their loved ones, the authorities continue to release conflicting information about the disaster.
But the Soma tragedy isn’t Turkey’s first. Turkey has the third highest rate of deaths at work for miners in the world. Some 13,000 miners were involved in accidents in 2013 and 1,308 miners have been killed in workplace accidents since 2000.
Until Tuesday, Turkey’s worst mining disaster had taken place in 1992, when 263 miners were killed near Zonguldak on the Black Sea but the Soma death toll has now surpassed that.
Corrosive effects of privatisation
A district in the heartland of Turkey’s mining industry, the residents of Soma know as well as anyone the corrosive effect that decades of privatisation has had on workers’ safety.
Other industries have also seen a rise in workplace accidents. In fact, between 2002 and 20111, there was a 40 per cent increase in the number of workplace accidents in Turkey.
The widescale use of subcontracting is one of the reasons for this increase, as is the lack of occupational health and safety measures in the workplace and inadequate labour inspection by the authorities.
In order to draw the government’s attention to the issue, Özgür Özel, a member of parliament from the main opposition party CHP, recently proposed a parliamentary inquiry into the high number of occupational accidents and poor security measures in the Soma district. The inquiry was vetoed by the ruling party.
Soma Komur Isletmeleri A.S., or Soma Holding, owns the coal mine where the deadly accident took place.
Turkey’s labour ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March this year, and was found to be in line with all current legislation.
But if that’s the case, why don’t we know something as simple as the exact number of workers who were in the mine at the time of the accident?
Not only does this raise the question of the approved technology but it also highlights problems with the inspection itself.
Soma Holding is a ‘redevance’ company run by a licensing system. Before Soma Holding acquired the mine in 2005, the cost of coal per ton was US$130 –US$140 but the company slashed the price to US$23.8 after the acquisition. Most of the miners are either casual, unregistered workers or they barely earn the minimum wage.
It’s clear that the company has simply transferred the profits made from its mines to the construction sector – Soma Holding also owns one of Turkey’s tallest buildings, the Spine Tower in Istanbul.
“Accidents are usual”
Government officials, local authorities and the mainstream media are currently trying to underplay the death toll at Soma while attacking anyone those who have taken to the streets in protest.
In a press conference just 24 hours after the tragedy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said “these accidents are usual.”
This is unjust and totally unacceptable, even though it betrays his contempt for workers. Following a disaster in 2010 where 30 miners were killed, he described the deaths as part of the “profession’s fate”.
Just a week ago, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security organised an International Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) symposium. The Minister Faruk Çelik bragged about the improvements of OHS and security measures in Turkey, and accused the trade unions of not doing enough to improve the situation.
Let’s not forget that on 1 May this year, the authorities blocked all the streets and prevented trade unionists from raising the issue OHS publicly at May Day events.
They didn’t stop us then and they won’t stop us now.
Yesterday, trade unions all over the country organised protest actions against the Soma tragedy. Protestors were brutally attacked by riot police with tear gas and water cannons but they won’t be intimidated.
Today, ITUC and ETUC members DISK and KESK, together with TMMOB (the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects) and TTB (the Turkish Medical Association) will go on general strike.
As the first funerals begin in Soma, unionists, activists, students and workers will gather in Taksim Square and in front of the Soma Holding headquarters to remind company bosses of their duty of care and to remind government officials of their responsibility to protects workers lives.
We are also calling on the government to ensure the implementation of health and safety legislation and to end the practice of subcontracting which leads to a violation of workers’ rights.
We’ve had enough of a system that puts profits before people, and that sees the health and safety of its workers as an unwelcome cost rather than a fundamental obligation.
If the necessary and appropriate inspections had been carried out in Soma, we would not have to bury our brothers.
For the men who are still trapped underground we try stay to hopeful but as we mourn for the dead workers, we are determined that this is the last time we have to do so.